Will Khalistan Become Modi’s Poll Issue, or Will Canada Turn Down the Thermostat?

Going by how Modi encashed Pulwama-Balakot in the elections to the present Lok Sabha, Khalistan looks like a potent issue which the ruling party may fully encash, putting the INDIA bloc on the back foot.

Will Khalistan be the next campaign issue of Narendra Modi as the BJP prepares for polls for the 18th Lok Sabha, due in early 2024? Remember, Modi won the 2019 elections to the 17 Lok Sabha with even higher numbers than his first triumph of 2014, on hype created about the killing of 40 CRPF personnel travelling from Jammu to Srinagar by road and Modi’s presumed retaliatory aerial bombing of Balakot in northwest Pakistan. He successfully projected himself as a muscular leader ready to teach Pakistan a lesson.

Soon after the three-day G20 jamboree on September 8-10, where Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised the killing of Surrey, British Columbia Gurdwara president Hardeep Singh Nijjar, also identified by the NIA as the chief of Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF), by two unknown gunmen alleged to be Indian agents, the temperature of the Khalistan issue, long dead and buried, has been raised by the Indian government.

Trudeau secured lip support from the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence grouping, comprising Canada itself along with the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand, over what he told the Canadian Parliament of Indian interference in Canada’s internal affairs, threatening Canada’s sovereignty and integrity by killing a Canadian citizen on home soil.

But Modi went much further within hours of Trudeau’s speech in his Parliament. India has downgraded all diplomatic and related activities in Canada, sending shock waves among Punjabis, specially Sikhs with close relatives in Canada. Canada has the second largest Sikh population after India and Sikhs play crucial roles in Canadian politics and government. Seven Sikh MPs are ministers, apart from high-ranking government officials. Most Sikhs are now Canadian citizens and with close relatives tending their farmlands, they need to travel frequently to Punjab and back. To facilitate this, there are now a couple of direct flights between Amritsar and Toronto.

Naturally, when Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) president Sukhbir Singh Badal took this up with Union home minister Amit Shah, there was near-panic among Punjabis, mainly Sikhs but others as well. The BJP does not have much political influence in Punjab. If and when it has won parliamentary constituencies, it has piggybacked either on the Akali Dal or Bollywood stars like Vinod Khanna. The last time, when they had no worthwhile candidate for their Gurdaspur seat, they persuaded Hema Malini to get film star Sunny Deol, who has hardly any political interest, to contest. And the BJP won that seat. But it is not capable of winning any seat in Punjab without a good section of Sikhs also supporting its candidate. Hyping the Khalistan issue will most certainly alienate the Sikh voter, at least in Punjab.

But going by how Modi encashed Pulwama-Balakot in the elections to the present Lok Sabha, Khalistan looks like a potent issue which the ruling party may fully encash, putting the INDIA bloc on the back foot. The Congress already supports the government on this issue and once Modi goes to town about the threat from Khalistan, the Opposition may not have a leg to stand on with respect to national security. It happened with Kargil in 1998-99, then in 2019 with Pulwama.

An added advantage this time is that Canada is too far away. Whereas there was some fear of escalation of war between India and Pakistan over the Pulwama-Balakot matter, Canada is another matter. Besides, the four other members of the Five Eyes, all of whom have significant trade and defence ties with India, would not allow Canada to go beyond verbal attacks, which Trudeau may continue to consolidate his political constituency, since next year his Liberal Party too is going for national elections and Sikh votes are important for any winning combination in Canada.

Adding to the tension between the two countries is the killing of another Sikh, Sukhdool Singh Gill alias Sukha, described by the NIA as a Khalistani terrorist. He was gunned down on September 20 in Winnipeg, Canada, very much like Nijjar, by “unidentified” killers. Sukha belonged to a prosperous farming family of Punjab and had fled to Canada in 2017. There are striking similarities between these two notable killings in Canada, which otherwise has a very low crime rate. Both Nijjar and Sukha were on the NIA list of Khalistani terrorists. Both were politically active, raising issues concerning Sikhs. Both were gunned down by “unidentified” gunmen. Will it fan the fires further, or will the Canadian government now reduce the temperature?

Faraz Ahmad is a senior journalist in Delhi.

This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.